Supporting Alternatives to Traditional Elephant Training Methods in Southeast Asia
In Asia about 16,000 elephants are currently maintained in captivity for a variety of purposes: logging, tourism, cultural and religious activities, and transportation. The training that they have received for these tasks has always been a subject of discussion because of the aggressive methods often used. The people that handle the elephants, also known as mahouts, have ancient training methods. These methods have evolved into dangerous labor that is sometimes characterized by firm and rough interactions with the elephants. It is surprising that this practice of intimidation has not changed over the years despite the long list of injuries and fatalities of mahouts, bystanders, and elephants alike, arguably attributed directly to the use of these practices. For this reason, Africam Safari and The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation have been teaching mahouts from seven countries of Southeast Asia how to handle their elephants through the use of safe and harmless methods. The goal is to convince the elephants to cooperate voluntarily without being threatened or harmed in order to receive the proper care they need. The most difficult task of this positive reinforcement project has been to convince the mahouts, whom are talented and with invaluable skills, to relinquish the practices they have been taught and have followed for many centuries. Nonetheless, many of the mahouts have been very receptive and remarkable results have been achieved with both the mahouts and their elephants. The goal is to upgrade the perception of the proper care and handling of the elephants. The primary aim is to encourage the use of effective alternatives that can be incorporated into the culture and traditions of the mahouts and then be transmitted to future generations.
The author would like to thank the other members of the positive reinforcement project team: Dr. Khyne U Mar, John Roberts, and Rodrigo Salas, DVM.